Kassa Mehari, the owner of Tony’s Market, on 24th Street corner can’t stop smiling; he can’t stop thinking about what is about to happen on his brick wall along Hampshire.
For more than three years, he loved a woman who graced the outside wall and then, she disappeared, a victim of taggers, of someone who decided she was no longer beautiful enough. For nearly six months, the wall has been a plain brown or a tagged wall of urban blight, but within an hour that will change. Within an hour, a new and beautiful woman created by the New York street artist Swoon, will emerge.
“I’m very thankful for what she did for us,” he says, referring to the internationally renowned artist sending a cardboard box from Brooklyn containing a 13-foot paper replacement to be wheat pasted to the wall today. “It’s amazing, believe me.”
The highly anticipated box, decorated with 10 handwritten red “fragile” arrives with Chicken John and crew, who pull up to the curb in a green truck plastered with dirt, paint and a bumper sticker that reads, “My other car runs on bullshit.”
They hop out and quickly transfer plastic buckets, brooms, cardboard rolls, paintbrushes and ladders from truck bed to sidewalk.
“I don’t know what we’re doing,” one of them says, as he heads to the wall with a big Ace Hardware bucket. “I’m sure Chicken John will yell at us and tell us what to do.”
“So, gently, with many hands, we’re gonna start unrolling it,” Chicken John shouts, as he places Swoon’s folded up piece on a padded blue blanket draped over two folding tables.
The crew of seven surrounds the piece, and they begin to unroll.
“Guys, this is not enough hands here,” Chicken John says. “Can I have hands on this side,” he asks. He’s worried about the thin paper ripping.
“Don’t let it take wind,” he says. A gush of wind sends a corner of the piece fluttering. “DON’T LET IT TAKE WIND,” he repeats.
Hands are rearranged, and ears await the next order.
“Guys, go slow,” Chicken John urges.
When the piece is fully unveiled (which requires some of the crew to step backwards into Hampshire Street to accommodate its grand scale) jaws drop at the gem on the table. It’s a colorful portrait of Thalassa, Greek goddess of the sea, printed from a giant linoleum block carving and hand-painted. She looks up and grips a flowing dress that turns to water and protects creatures of the sea.
Designed specifically for an installation at the New Orleans Museum of Art last year, “Thalassa” was inspired by thoughts of a city affected by the Gulf disaster, and of its relationship to water. The vibrant piece differs greatly from Swoon’s somber black and white one that memorialized Silvia Elena, but its expressive lines and organic shapes are just as stunning.
Chicken John orders the crew to roll it back up, and to do so slowly.
“The problem is that once it rips, it wants to rip all over the place,” he says.
They begin rolling, but Chicken John is not satisfied.
“Why don’t you guys go slow,” he says. “You guys are going like a million miles an hour.”
“It’s OK,” somebody says.
“No, it’s not OK,” he replies.
They slow it down.
“K,” he says. “That’s enough. Put some weight on it.”
They grab containers of wheatpaste powder, matte gel medium, a graphite hammer and whatever else they can find on the table.
The crew then heads to the wall to find the center of the space they have to work with. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve,” Chicken John counts aloud as he taps a row of bricks.
“So this one,” he says, pointing to brick #12. “Yeah. There it is.”
He wedges a ballpoint pen into the crevice next to the brick and draws two lines in an arrow formation with a black marker. Then they unroll the art again to find the center of it.
When they take backward steps into Hampshire Street, edges of the piece in hand, a car swerves to avoid them, interrupting the path of an oncoming car. The crew freezes, then steps forward. Chicken John begins to yell.
“F*** them, man! They can f****n’ wait.”
Tony, from the deli inside Tony’s Market, wanders outside to see how it’s coming.
“Hey, we got the right one this time,” he asks, referring to the restoration-that-wasn’t a few weeks ago. “Look at that thing. Wow. I’m excited.”
Chicken John orders the crew to gently and slowly roll it back up, and they begin rolling. He hears a tear.
“Hold on,” he shouts. “Who’s tearing? Who’s tearing? Who’s f*****g tearing?”
He tells them, once again, that they’re going way too fast. He doesn’t want any more tears. And then he quietly adds, “You guys are doing great.”
When they’re done rolling, Chicken John sweeps the wall with a broom and notes how dirty it is. He wonders if they should wash it first.
Jimmy says no. “Smear it with the glue. Smear it with the art. Smear it with the glue again. Walk away,” he says.
A guy who lives down the street heads towards 24th, and slows his pace when he sees what’s happening. “I knew you were coming,” he says to the crew. “Sooner or later.” He picks up the pace and then shouts back over his shoulder: “This is great. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
The crew is ready to mix what they hope will keep the piece on the wall for many years: wheatepaste cut with gesso and water. They reach for the materials, but Chicken John says they have to think about how much they’re making. The trick is to not run out. “We don’t just start throwing things around,” he tells them.
He scoops the wheatepaste out of the container with the handle of a paintbrush, dumps it into two buckets, and adds water.
“Who wants to get dirty?” Jimmy asks.
“I’ll get dirty,” Tiffany says, without hesitation.
“Roll up your sleeves,” Jimmy says.
Elbow-deep in buckets, they massage handfuls of the slimy white medium.
“Get all of the glumps to non-glump,” Chicken John says.
When they do, they transfer the mixture back and forth from their buckets to other buckets to mix it.
Jimmy dips a paint roller in it and approaches the wall. He begins rolling up and down, up and down, and when he reaches above his head to roll, the medium splashes his hair, glasses and clothes.”Oh god, it’s everywhere,” he says, without stopping. “It’s all over!”
He tells the crew that they have to work quickly, or else the glue will dry.
“So let’s go,” Chicken John says. “Move your bodies.”
Four of them hustle to the table, lift the piece, and carry it gently to the wall.
“Is anyone wearing anything that they don’t want completely….”
“NO!” the others shout in unison.
When rollers and brushes hit the wall, the glue starts flying. “Whew!” the crew cheers, as the ones below get splashed by those on ladders above. “Whew hoo hoo!”
For the next 40 minutes, 16 hands work furiously to get Swoon’s piece on the wall.They hold it in place, roll it, brush it, pass ladders, support ladders, smooth out the creases.
Two young women walking by stop to watch.
“I’m totally thrilled,” says Arena Reed, her eyes wide with excitement. “I just love seeing art go up in the neighborhood.”
Reed and her friend echo the crew’s cheers as the piece takes shape. “Whew! Wowzer! Oh wow. It’s so awesome.”
Jimmy is at the top of the taller of the two ladders, rubbing the medium carefully across Thalassa’s brown cheek with his fingers. The others are below, making sure every inch has been smoothed down.
And then finally, one-by-one, they step back from the wall.
“How’s it look,” Chicken John asks. He quickly answers his own question. “Oh, it looks beautiful.”
Tiffany gets some distance, and agrees.”Oh, it’s gorgeous.”
Some of the others are still smoothing bumps in the paper, as high as they can reach. “Longer arms, longer arms!” Kelly shouts.
Ashkon Davaran, who was driving up Hampshire, pulls over to observe. “I was intrigued by this,” he says, watching the splattered crew massage the bricks with sticky white hands until the crevices in between them begin to show through.”God, it’s such a cool piece. And I love the team-based production in getting it up.”
The crew descend the ladders and grab pink rags from a wire basket to clean themselves off.
“I got gesso in my eye,” one of them says.
“I got gesso in my mouth,” says another.
Chicken John disappears into Tony’s Market and returns with a bag of Newman’s Own chocolate cookies and arms full of bottles of blue, green, red and white sodas. They stand back, eye the wall, and sip their sodas in between smoothing “that little spot right in Talassa’s armpit,” making sure her dress doesn’t fly up in the wind, and fixing the clump on her right eye.
Jimmy descends the ladder and steps back. “That looks f****n’ good, man,” he says.
“So is that it,” someone asks. Jimmy sweeps away the white puddles from the sidewalk.
Chicken John says it’ll dry in an hour or two. He’ll come back later today to touch up a couple of things, and he’ll be back tomorrow to put a protective coating on it. The coating, which Swoon’s last piece lacked, will ensure that any graffiti that touches Thalassa can be washed away without harming the piece.
Kelly C. Gallamore, one of the crew members, is invigorated. She and Tiffany got an email from Chicken John yesterday that read, “we need hands for some art.” Invested in his projects, they always help, and they’re never disappointed. But they had no idea that they would be part of something like this.
“I feel like something like this connects communities,” Gallamore says. “Especially as people talk about it. And even if they don’t know the exact story behind it, they can ask questions.”
Kassa Mehari will soon be swarmed with questions about the goddess on the side of his store. Gallamore believes that even if viewers don’t have personal connections to New Orleans, they can relate to something that we all depend on. “Water is life,” she says. “We only have so much of it.”
“Watch,” Mehari says. “Watch now.” It’s the part he loved about Swoon’s last piece, and the part about his store that he’s been missing. The portrait of Silvia Elena raised questions that led to awareness of the femicides happening in Mexico. “It tells a lot,” he says of Swoon’s work. “The message for the community is very important.”